Where are you from?
So…I’m leaving South Africa. It took me forever, to come write these words here, and I know it’s going to take more than one go for me to express everything I have to say about leaving South Africa.
In less than a week, I will be moving to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. My move feels special to me for two reasons:
I ain’t never ever lived on my own. EVER.
I have lived in Johannesburg, South Africa almost my entire conscious life.
For the above reasons, I felt some type of way, when I realized I had made the conscious decision to move. In the midst of the thousand and one things that came to my head, the question, ‘where are you from?’ (kinda random, I know), started playing a lot of games with me and low key giving me anxiety.
I was thinking, when I get to Abidjan and people ask me where I’m from, do I say I’m South African, but originally from both Congos or do I say I’m Congolese, but I only have a South African passport, though I do not belong to any South African ethnic group and only speak English and French and no African languages and people have come damn near cutting me for it? You know what I mean? This question is giving me anxiety.
My parents hail from the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I’m so proud of that. These countries have rich cultures that I have internalized, and brought with me everywhere, without even realizing it. My rapport with elders and the norms and values I live by are an eternal link to the Kongo (with a K because I’m referring to both of them). So despite not having lived much in Pointe- Noire, nor having ever stepped foot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (damn, that is a sad truth), I feel like I am Kongolese. So in South Africa, when people ask me where I’m from, I say, I’m from both Congos. Queue the innumerable jokes that go kind of like “So you mean to say you’re born in the middle of the Congo River or something?” Queue emoji rolling eyes.
All that said, when I’m away in any other country, when I think of home, I think of South Africa. I think of Johannesburg. And that is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. Having lived so many heartbreaks in this country, due to the fact that foreigners, especially of African descent are not the most welcome (We are no strangers to the xenophobic violence that cast a dark shadow on South Africa), I have had a hard time claiming, or embracing being, feeling South African.
When I’ve been away for a long time (the longest so far has been like a month and a half), I’m so glad to touch down on South African territory, but then the anxiety of going through customs dawns on me. Someone’s going to want to speak Zulu to me, I’m going to offend them by responding that I don’t understand. They will look angrily at me and say, where are you truly from? You don’t speak any of our languages? Or they’ll just say hello and goodbye, or they’ll be really nice. That is the lottery game that is often played, either at customs or the department of Home Affairs (Don’t get me started on the anxiety involved in having to renew my passport, ID…I saw myself denied from obtaining a ‘Smart ID’ because my parents are not born in South Africa). Don’t get me wrong, all countries have their prejudices and battles to deal with. And all have their repercussions on us as individuals.
In the end, I am still left with the question, where are you from? I’m still not sure how to respond.
Taiye Selasi helps, when she says that she is home wherever she feels like a local -watch her TED talk here.
Where are you from? Does the question confuse you?